The list of the deaths of priests and religious present on Irish soil is published each year by the Irish Bishops' Conference. In just three years, 21% of the clergy died. It is a hemorrhage that threatens the very visibility of the Catholic Church.
“Covid-19 has accelerated change, and very quickly the traditional church structure that has seen us grow is literally dying. There will be a huge change that will take place, and churches will close.” Fr. Tim Hazelwood's observation is very worrying.
The Irish priest, incardinated in the diocese of Cloyne, Ireland, commented at the beginning of 2022 on the statistics on the number of priests and religious published by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP).
According to these statistics, 174 sisters and 166 priests and religious died in 2019.
Another 191 sisters died in 2020, along with 223 priests and religious. For 2021 – statistics ending last September – 131 other sisters have been called back to God, as have 131 priests and religious.
In all, the number of deaths, over the last three years, represents approximately 21% of the total number of priests and religious present in Ireland: “these figures have a shock wave effect; it is very sad to see that so many people have died in such a short period of time,” comments Fr. John Collins, one of the leaders of the ACP.
Partial data, because according to The Irish Examiner, we must add at least 76 other sisters, 36 priests and five religious, who died between last October and January 2022.
If in 2014, the Church of Ireland had 2,067 active diocesan priests, by 2018 there were only 1,800, four years ago.
Aside from possible deaths, the number of active priests is expected to continue to decline: in the Diocese of Cork and Ross alone, 11 priests are planning to retire over the next three years.
Not to mention those who had planned to end their ministry as the pandemic began, and who had to remain in their post for an additional year or two in order to lend a hand to sick or exhausted confreres.
“We are all aware of the aging of the population of priests, but it is only when you look carefully at the numbers that you realize how high the death toll is,” Fr. Collins worries.